There ain't much in the way of distinctive female screenwriters, or distinctive screenwriters in general for that matter. So when Helen Childress appeared on the film scene with 1994's decade defining Reality Bites, it seemed a new era, a new voice was about to be ushered in. That seemingness was to be eradicated as the years wore on and the buzz surrounding Childress vanished into the black abyss of faded potential talent (Troy Duffy of Boondock Saints fame lives there now too).
One of the most awe-inspiring facts about the writing of Reality Bites is that it was a spec script written at a time when festival submissions and rogue HD filmmmaking were not options for the struggling screenwriter. Its original title, Blue Bayou, is what made its way into the hands of a producer named Michael Shamberg in 1991. Even when a producer likes a script, however, that rarely exempts the property from a rewrite. And then another and then another and, in Helen Childress' case, another sixty-seven rewrites, making a total of seventy possible butcherings.
If that wasn't enough to make her swear off a career in writing for film, she then consulted with Ben Stiller for nine months before the film went into production, although something tells me it wasn't the same sort of symbiotic consultations that took place between, say, Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody on the script for Juno.
As the hype around the newly titled Reality Bites script began to swirl, Universal was able to snag Winona Ryder in a role that would become one of her definitive performances and mark her as the premier offbeat actress of the nineties (then again, Christina Ricci was her only real competition). When asked what drew her to the role, Ryder mused, "I think my character is probably very close to what I would probably have ended up as if I hadn't become an actress."
As more stars became attached to the project, it was evident that this film had the propensity to turn into the first commercial zeitgeist film of the decade. The story and characters were a conglomerate of all the things that represented Generation X at that time. There are many people who feel Reality Bites was almost too much of an oversimplification of the alleged qualities of a Gen Xer: Lazy, self-indulgent, confused, and in the midst of a perpetual identity crisis. But this is how it really was, how they really were. And Helen Childress is extremely underrated for her ability to capture this in her writing so succinctly.
So why, then, did Helen Childress disappear? Was she afraid she could never write something like that again? Was she exiled by the asshole Hollywood powers that be? I have no idea. I only wish she would return again to upstage them all, Charlie Kaufman and Diablo Cody included. All I know is that, as of now, there is no public information about her whereabouts. I mean, shit, is she even still alive? These are who killed Marilyn level questions, with similarly vague answers.
But I guess, at least, there is one product of work to remember her by. A critic for The Washington Post (which is still a respectable publication, if you ask me) put it best when describing Reality Bites: "By aiming specifically--and accurately--at characters in their twenties, debuting screenwriter Helen Childress and first-time director Stiller achieve something even greater: They encapsulate an era." Scratch that part out about Ben Stiller and you've got yourself a perfect quote.